What is Stefano’s without Stefano?
Or Marie? Or Antonella and Frank and Lenny?
Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs was sold by the LaCommare family last year. Stefano and his wife, Marie, wanted to retire. Their son, Lenny, and daughter Antonella, and her husband, Frank Paradiso, wanted a smaller place, so they opened Antonella’s Pizzeria in Winter Park.
But Stefano’s went on being Stefano’s, but under the new ownership of F. Alejandro Martinez. It’s very possible that nothing has changed in the decor or the food. In fact, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed in the decor — it’s still a sort of cheesy plaster walls with faux cracks painted in, fake block doorways and elaborate painted murals of Italian coastal scenes that never make you think they’re the real thing.
But now there is no Marie or Antonella to welcome guests. And Stefano won’t come out of the kitchen in his stained apron to walk among the tables and chat with the customers.
Was it the LaCommares who made the food taste a little better?
Looking back at my previous review, from 2006, I pretty much said that.
Not that the food wasn’t good on my recent visit. The fried calamari was just fine, as was the accompanying marinara.
Pollo di Stefano was a big saute of chicken strips and sausage, with mushrooms and prosciutto in a buttery white wine sauce. A tad soupy, but nice flavors.
Vitello alla Bolognese was odd and unlike any Bolognese style dish I’ve ever had. Instead of a classic meat sauce, this dish featured a breaded veal scaloppine topped with prosciutto and melted mozzarella cheese. So, more like a veal parmesan. But also with a sauce fashioned out of Marsala wine. Which made the breading of the veal soggy. Too many things about this one just didn’t work.
Entrees came with a choice of soup or salad (get the soup), bread with olive oil, and a choice of side pasta. I had the penne with marinara and my companion had linguine with Alfredo sauce. My friend won — the Alfredo was wonderfully rich and gloppy.
Our server was friendly and helpful, as were other staff members who brought dishes or refilled glasses.
But it just seemed to be missing the heart that it once had. There was no one in the dining room that seemed to be an owner, or someone who conveyed that they wanted my business or wanted me to think of the restaurant as my go-to place for Italian comfort food.
Would it be different if the name had changed when the restaurant changed hands? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a cautionary lesson to anyone who takes over an established business. You’re not just buying the fixtures, the facility and the recipes. For a restaurant like Stefano’s, you’re also buying the good will that it earned from its guests. You can run a restaurant properly, get the food to taste good and get it served efficiently.
But the soul of the restaurant has to be baked in.
Stefano’s Trattoria is at 1425 Tuskawilla Road, Winter Springs. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-659-0101.